WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

Insights, analysis, techniques, opinions, and experiences from the team behind the WELS Hymnal Project.

I was still a child when I noticed it for the first time, and it struck me. As the son of a pastor, I had grown up in the WELS bubble: I never attended a school or a service that wasn't WELS. The first time I went to a non-Lutheran church, it was right after I got out of early service at my home congregation. When worship started at this other church, I couldn't believe it. They used the same scripture lessons we had that morning. They called the Sunday by the same name. One of the prayers even sounded really close to what I had heard. What, did they get a hold of my dad's service folder? Blatant plagiarism! Or — a wilder thought to my young mind — are we actually doing the same things on purpose? I thought we were different!

Well, we are different from other church bodies, but I found out that morning that we aren't completely different. Our doctrine might differ radically in some areas, but in the Christian calendar (Advent, Lent, etc.) and the lectionary (the assigned readings), we were part of something bigger. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I realized that the Holy Christian Church was bigger than the WELS. It reminded me that, while real scriptural differences mean we can't fellowship with those church bodies right now, one day the whole Holy Christian Church will worship together in heaven.

We use a Christian calendar and a Christian lectionary because they enable us to share the whole counsel of God with the congregation in a pattern that emphasizes the life of Christ and the teachings of Christ. As an added blessing that pattern ties our worship to the historic Church and gives echoes of the unity we will enjoy with all Christians in heaven.

Establishing the Christian calendar and the lectionary will comprise a large part of the work of the Scripture Committee. We need to answer the question: how different will we be?

Key areas under consideration would include items like a review of Christian Worship's season of End Time. Should we continue to celebrate a season that is unique to the WELS? Another will be a review of the supplemental lessons that were published in Christian Worship: Supplement. Many have appreciated the increased use of Old Testament stories for the First Lesson. Others have appreciated that the supplemental lessons closely follow the theme of the Gospel, resulting in a tightly unified service. Should we continue to provide up to five lessons for each Sunday, or should we provide only three? Which three would those be?

Our committee will also wrestle with issues like the texts of the Lord's Prayer, the Creeds, and the songs of the liturgy. We will focus on translation and language to ensure that Scripture is used in a consistent, Christ-centered, confessional Lutheran way. And finally we will explore the daily lectionary and a possible commentary on the lectionary.

Thanks for your interest in the project. Your prayers for our work would be appreciated. So also would be your ideas and comments. Please make use of the contact form to share your thoughts.

Do you have a certain route you take to work every morning? A particular path for dropping off your kids at school? At the beginning of a new school year or start of a new job, you need to do some exploring to find out which route works best. After a while, this path becomes familiar. Of course, you have alternate routes, too. You can take these in special situations (for instance, a traffic jam on your regular route) or just for variety’s sake.

One of the tasks for the hymnal project is to find rites to use in our worship. Rites are those patterns of words and songs that guide us when we gather in God’s name. (Just a few examples: the Service of Word and Sacrament, the service of Holy Baptism, the service of Christian Marriage, the confirmation rite, the rite for a palm procession on Palm Sunday.)

Maybe we can think of rites as routes, as paths to guide us where we want to go. Every time we gather in God’s name, we want to move together toward some common goals: we want to proclaim God’s love, to praise his name, to encourage fellow Christians, and to communicate clearly to those who don’t yet know our Savior. We look for routes to guide us toward those goals, rites that will help us listen, speak, and sing. And each time we worship we’re mindful of the fact that we’re moving a few steps closer to our heavenly home. The rites we use bring us the fuel we need for the journey: the promises of our God, delivered to us through his Word and Sacraments.

We realize when we gather for worship that we’re not the first to have travelled down this path, but only the latest in a long line of Christians. Therefore, we respect the routes laid out for us by sisters and brothers who are now in glory. These old rites that have faithfully pointed Christians to God’s Word and Sacraments can benefit us in the 21st Century, too. Some time-tested routes may be well served by some minor construction and repaving. And God gives us freedom to craft new rites, too, thinking of his Scriptures and the good of our fellow travelers.

Our God is also adding new faces to our band of travelers. He brings people to our church services who haven’t heard the good news about Jesus. Will our rites communicate the Word clearly to them? We want our rites to proclaim God’s grace to those who have yet to hear it, so that the Spirit can add them to our number.

My name is Pastor Jon Micheel, and I’ll have the privilege of working on rites for the hymnal project. Over my years in the public ministry, I’ve grown in my appreciation for the legacy of Lutheran worship, and I’ve also seen firsthand how our services have the opportunity to preach the gospel to people who have never heard it before. The rites committee will be looking at the orders of service for Sunday mornings, weekday evenings, and many other occasions. As we do our work, we’ll aim to respect the vibrant heritage handed down to us as confessional Lutherans. We will also strive to share that gospel-rich heritage with people new to our churches in ways they can understand. And we’ll endeavor to do these things with beauty and elegance. It’s an enormous task! But it’s also one we’re honored and excited to be a part of.

Looking forward to traveling with you!

A dear brother in my congregation (a retired pastor) heard the news that I was going to be chairing the Hymnody Committee for the new hymnal. “Well that should keep you busy!” he replied. He then took the opportunity to give me my first feedback on the new hymnal’s contents: “Get rid of ‘Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old’ (CW 267). We sang it twenty-five years ago at my previous parish and it was a disaster!” (He has since made that request official to Pastor Michael Schultz, our new hymnal’s project director.)

There is no doubt that “Isaiah, Mighty Seer” is a difficult hymn. There is also no doubt in my mind what happened twenty-five years ago when “Isaiah, Mighty Seer” flopped. I’m willing to wager that there was no choir to help, no soloist to lead, and no instruments to introduce. I’m also willing to guess that the organist played the hymn at a glacial pace. If that wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago, it certainly is the case in much of our synod’s current musical practice. Poor “Isaiah, Mighty Seer.” He often sounds mousy instead of mighty!

Fast forward twenty-four years. Last year we celebrated our parish’s 125th anniversary. The Reformation celebration was designed to introduce modern Americans to our German roots. Parts of the service were done auf Deutsch. We offered up a mostly English rendition of Luther’s German Mass. We sang “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” for the Sanctus in the communion service. After a brief organ introduction (during which the people could read a paragraph about the hymn’s rich history and biblical basis), we had the choir chant the first two-thirds of the hymn. Then when it was time for the angels around the throne to sing, we pulled out all the organ stops, added the congregation, and threw in a brass quartet for good measure. “Holy is God the Lord of heavenly hosts!” thundered three times in the sanctuary. It still wasn’t “A Mighty Fortress,” but it was a good sing.

What was the difference? Something that is equally important whether you are a large congregation with more resources or a smaller congregation with fewer resources: we took care to introduce people to a new hymn.

At first glance, you might assume this blog’s title suffers from dyslexia. Hmmm…. Pastor Christie probably meant to write “Introducing New Hymns to Your People.” After all, the new hymnal will have hundreds of new hymns that will need introducing.

But think about it for a moment: does a hymn need to be introduced to people or do people need to be introduced to a hymn? A hymn is only a collection of syllables and sounds notated on paper or an iPad. A hymn has no life in and of itself. The work on the hymn’s side of things is done once it reaches the point of publication. It is the people who need our attention. They need to learn how to hum a hymn’s melody. They have the hearts that will be warmed by a hymn’s theology. Their fingers and vocal chords will transform quarter notes and letters into the worship of our Redeemer! Introducing people to hymns is a pastoral task. Whether we are pastors, teachers, directors, or instrumentalists, we must keep in mind that we are dealing with real people, with their worship of the Holy Trinity, with the Holy Gospel. In sum: Lutherans don’t do music for music’s sake. We do music because it carries the good news of Christ to people’s hearts.

I promise that the Hymnody Committee will work long and hard to make certain that only the best hymns “make the cut” for our new hymnal. I ask for your prayers to that end. In the meantime, I ask you to keep on working to introduce your people to good hymnody both old and new. To that end, you will be in my prayers! Finding 600+ hymns among tens of thousands will be hard work. Teaching your people the meaning and melodies of a few hundred hymns? That’s the real work! May the Lord of the Church help you do it.

In 1993 the bar was set pretty high. Within several years of the release of Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, more than 95% of WELS congregations were using it.

Just eleven at the time, I wasn’t aware of that fact much less how truly remarkable it was. But as I was asked to consider leading the communications committee for our synod’s next hymnal project, you better believe that statistic was on my mind. Ninety-five percent. Is it even possible to repeat that in 2024?

In some ways, we might be at a disadvantage this time around. By 1993 more than five decades had passed since the release of The Lutheran Hymnal in 1941. Many things had changed. I would imagine most people were more than ready for a new hymnal. Will that be the case in 2024, barely three decades since the release of Christian Worship?

In other ways, we might be at an advantage this time around. In 1993 the Internet and email were just emerging as ways to share information. No one even knew what a smartphone, tablet, or Facebook page was. This project’s communication committee can and will make use of some pretty powerful tools to carry out its work.

I suppose more than trying to recreate a remarkable blessing of the past, this hymnal’s communications committee will strive to help the people of the Wisconsin Synod appreciate the gifts that the Holy Spirit continues to pour out on the Church in the realm of music and worship. The other six committees within this project will be carrying out important and exciting work. Those of us on the communications committee will try to give you, the people we serve, as much input and insight into that work as possible. Whatever the next hymnal ends up looking like, it will belong to our entire church body. And that is as true today as it will be when it is released ten years from now. We will strive to make that reality apparent from day one.

During the first few years of this project, the communications committee will focus on research. How are the churches and schools of our synod making use of Christian Worship? What will they be looking for in our next hymnal?

The next few years will focus on education. A hymnal project is a natural opportunity to explore the theology and practice of worship. As the other six committees carry out their work, they will no doubt learn a great deal and be very eager to share it with you.

The final few years will focus on introduction. By that time, many of the decisions determining the content of our next hymnal will have already been made. The communications committee will do all we can to help the churches and schools of our synod grow familiar with what is new or different prior to publication.

Thank you for taking an interest in this important work. Over the course of the coming weeks, the chairmen of the other six committees will introduce themselves and their committee’s work. They, along with all those involved with the project, certainly appreciate your ongoing prayers.

Friends,

Our church body has taken steps to initiate the production of our next hymnal, a successor to the well-received Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. With the recognition that a hymnal and a supplement are ultimately intended to be combined, and that the members of our synod have expressed a continuing and rising interest in acquiring and using quality worship materials, groundwork on the next set of hymnal resources has now begun.

It should be noted that the previous sentence speaks of a set of resources. Different than the hymnal release in 1993, the next release of materials is planned to be a simultaneous release of a wider array of resources than the pew edition itself. WELS congregations can look forward to ancillary volumes such as handbook materials and concordance and worship planning resources (some in hard copy and some in digital versions and some in both) and digital music resources and the like becoming available at the same time as the new pew edition. This release is roughly targeted for 2023/2024.

There’s a change in the air when a church body begins a new hymnal project. Hypothetical discussions about future resources and worship issues all of a sudden become much more real as current materials actually come up for review and as real openings are made for new materials to be added.

It is our hope that many will be interested in the project, but it is at the same time our intention to make the process as transparent as possible by inviting people to come along for the ride. To a degree, the work of the seven committees (psalmody, hymnody, rites, communications, literature, scripture, technology) will be observable on this site. Visitors will be able to submit materials and offer opinions and feedback. In these ways and more, scriptural worship education will be receiving a shot in the arm.

The project is predominantly about continuing to make more excellent worship resources available to the congregations of our synod. With the expectation in our day and age that these resources will be digital and downloadable and device-ready, the technology aspect of the project will certainly be receiving our attention. We do recognize, however, that before worrying about the method of media delivery, we have a higher concern about the integrity of the materials – that they are faithful to God’s Word and that they proclaim Christ as Savior and King.

As we bear in mind that we want all the materials of the new hymnal to be very accessible to both worship leaders (for corporate worship) and to individuals (for private devotional use), we very much want to open ourselves up to all who have an interest in these resources. To that end, won’t you please register to receive notifications and updates on our progress? We’d be most pleased if you would. We are here not only to produce materials but also and more importantly to be of personal service to you. God bless our efforts to that end and to his glory!

Pastor Michael Schultz, director
WELS Hymnal Project